Jonathan Chait

Tone Down the Mushfulness In Punditry

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I made a prominent guest appearance in Michael Gerson's Washington Post column the other day. It is very hard to summarize what the column was about. The general theme was a defense of civility. I came into the picture, as you might have guessed, for writing a 2003 article in which I confessed, "I hate President George W. Bush."

Among many conservatives, especially those, like Gerson, who worked for Bush and continue to adore him, that article is a seminal moment in American history. It is proof that liberal opposition to Bush was madness, that their beloved president was an abused and persecuted figure. It's been cited far more than anything else I've ever written. I have trouble understanding why. The main point of the piece was to counter what was then a commonly-expressed opinion that liberal disdain for Bush was utterly inexplicable.

So I set out to explicate it. In the article, I carefully explained that, from the liberal perspective, Bush was indeed an extremely bad president. This is no longer controversial. I also explained what it is about Bush's personality that so many liberals, myself included, found so unattractive. I did point out that Bush hatred can be taken too far, that presidents ought to be judged on their policies rather than their personality, and that liberals often erred in allowing personal disdain of Bush to color their judgment on his policies -- which were overwhelmingly but not universally awful. (At the time of the article, I supported the Iraq war, despite my contempt for Bush, though I now regret having doing so.)

Yet the admission of personally detesting Bush was received on the right with hysteria and incredulity. I continue to find it strange. Obviously some people find Bush quite likable, and Gerson regards Bush in almost worshipful terms. These things are matters of taste. I'm not sure what case there is to make that my opinion of Bush wreaked such damage to the fabric of the national discourse.

Gerson's column compiles together a series of statements under the general rubric on incivility. Along with the shot at yours truly, Gerson upbraids various liberals, including Harry Reid, for calling Bush a "loser" and a "liar"; Al Gore,for calling Bush a "moral coward"; and unnamed anti-war protesters for comparing Bush to Hitler.

For the sake of bipartisanship, Gerson more gently chides Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for honoring the Confederacy and neglecting to mention slavery, and Sarah Palin, for seeming to encourage her supporters to assassinate government officials. Balance!

What all these statements -- and, in McConnell's case, official state actions -- have in common escapes me. Gerson writes, in a paragraph that I think is supposed to sum up his point:

[Q]uestioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one's opponents -- is a sign of democratic decline. From the late Roman republic to Weimar Germany, these attitudes have been the prelude to thuggery. Thugs can come with clubs, with bullhorns, with Internet access.

This is a very bizarre paragraph. Most of the commentary he decries is not described anywhere therein; none of his examples include "questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome," "abusing" or "attempting to silence one's opponents." It's true that several of us were "demeaning" President Bush, but if that's a sign of democratic decline, then the republic has been teetering on the brink of dictatorship for its entire existence. And I simply don't know what to make of Gerson's conflation of attitudes expressed via bullhorn and the internet, on the one hand, with those expressed via "clubs."

Trying to pluck an actual argument out of this pastiche of finger-wagging is impossible. Gerson is apparently trying to argue that responsible leadership means drumming unacceptable opinions out of public discourse, and those opinions include "Slavery was good," "I hate President Bush," and "You might want to consider shooting government officials." Gerson ends his column by declaring that he does not hate President Obama, thereby establishing his moral superiority, though I'm not sure how his statement does so. (If Howard Dean were president, I'm sure Gerson would despise him.)

A constant theme of Gerson's Washington Post columns is his attempt to scold those who fail to live up to his standards of public discourse. The problem -- and this is the whole problem with the civility obsession -- is that it's hard to formulate a coherent set of standards. Gerson thinks Al Franken belongs outside the realm of acceptable discourse. On the other hand, he thinks Rush Limbaugh -- who regularly whips up racial fears among whites -- belongs within that acceptable discourse. He regards political opinions expressed via the internet as far more dangerous than those expressed in print. And Gerson's standard is deeply informed by his conviction that anybody who considers George W. Bush a bad person is, by definition, a lunatic who should be excluded from respectable discourse.  This fact ought to caution us against both Gerson's general belief in the necessity of gatekeepers of civility and his specific belief that he should be one of them.

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